Interview: Orla Gartland

Interview: Orla Gartland

IT IS JANUARY 2014 when I first meet Orla Gartland in a café in Drumcondra, Dublin to discuss her role as ‘Ireland’s most influential teenager’.

Well, okay. Maybe that title, bestowed upon her by some excitable journalist, isn’t quite accurate —but with over 10million YouTube views and counting, it’s clear that the then 18-year-old has a platform.

Gartland, the young “music-makin’ginger nutcase”as she is wont to describe herself, has become one of Ireland’s biggest YouTube stars over the last few years.

Uploading folk-pop covers of songs by everyone from Mumford & Sons to Joni Mitchell, Outkast and Hozier direct from her childhood bedroom, she has built a career for herself that regularly allows her to sell-out gigs in Dublin, tour Britain and establish fanbases in places as far-flung as the US.

She has collaborated with Irish acts like Bressie, Hudson Taylor, Gavin James and Keywest, her simply-made DigiCam videos have been viewed over 10million times and she has 54,000 Facebook fans and 21,000 Twitter followers.

Not too shabby for someone with absolutely no label, marketing budget or PR strategy whatsoever.

As swift as Gartland’s rise has seemed, however, her success has not been overnight despite her tender years. An aspiring musician from a young age —initially on violin before swapping it for guitar at the age of 12 —she originally began recording her performances and uploading them to YouTube at 14 in a bid to gain feedback from her peers.

“I had no idea what I was doing,”she admits, laughing, “and weirdly, that’s why I stuck up videos in the first place. Someone mentioned in passing that a great way to get some feedback on all the voice stuff would be to start playing some gigs. And I thought ‘great’—but I soon realised that nobody was gonna want to book a 14-year-old who’d never played a gig before.

Putting up videos was my alternative to playing gigs. I was looking for someone to come along and say ‘I’ve been singing for a while, and this is what you should do to improve.’”

There was no ‘Eureka!’moment when she realised that things were beginning to grow at a rapid rate, but seeing people come out to your gigs was a big deal, she says.

“It was a slow burner at the beginning,”she says, nodding. “I’d upload the video and I’d look back a month later and be like, ‘Oh. That has a thousand views, that’s really weird. I wonder who those people are?’

When it gets to a big level, it’s still just numbers on a screen; I think it becomes more real when you actually see real people. That’s why it meant so much when people started actually paying to come and see me play.”

It seems unrealistic for a musician’s career to grow so organically in this day and age, but when we speak again just over 12 months later, the numbers don’t lie.

Hits on Gartland’s YouTube channel have continued to soar; she’s now at over 11million views, and she’s gained over 20,000 Facebook fans in the last year alone. But things have changed in other senses, too.

Firstly, having recently turned 20, she is no longer a teenager. “Don’t remind me,”she groans good-naturedly. “I feel so ooooold.”

Secondly, she has upped sticks and relocated to London permanently.

Most importantly, however, Gartland has spent most of the last year working on redefining her sound; being known as the ‘YouTube covers girl’has been useful, but she is now primarily focused on original material, with new EP Lonely People following the Roots EP in November 2013.

“It felt like a bit of a daunting task at first, because I was so grateful for everything that YouTube did —and still does —for me and tons of other musicans,”says the bright, bubbly Gartland when we catch up.

“I respected it so much as a platform as well as wanting to distance myself from it —so it was kind of a weird dynamic. I was meeting people who used to be really huge on MySpace…and we know what happened to that,”she laughs.

“So I was conscious of that. I do keep the channel active and make sure that I keep in touch with people —but yeah. It’s only the last few months that I’ve kind of felt that I’m starting to be taken seriously.”

The young Dubliner may come across as a lighthearted chatterbox in person, but there’s no doubting that she treats her career with the gravest importance.

This is the young woman, after all, who decided to book a British tour the summer after her Leaving Cert while all of her friends were embarking on J1 adventures.

“I was thinking ‘OK, I’m finishing my exams in June…I want something to look forward to, but I don’t really want to go to Magaluf,’”she recalls with a smile.

“I’m really boring about those kind of things. But I thought ‘I need something to look forward to, to pull me through this bleak, bleak time of life’—so I booked dates in Cork, Dublin, Manchester, Bristol and London. They sold out in advance, which I hadn’t expected. It was a fun way to spend the summer.”

After leaving school, she auditioned (and was accepted) for Dublin music college BIMM, but decided to defer her application for a year.

Things are going so well at the moment, however, that the deferral is ongoing.

“I love doing music and I love the fact that it seems to be a vaguely sustainable thing at the moment —but I still have the classic Irish granny pushing the CAO deadlines under my nose every so often, as you might expect,”she laughs.

She has a manager, too, although her parents were initially against any professional involvement. “He reached out and said ‘Hey, do you want a manager?’and I said ‘Yes!’and my mum said ‘No you don’t! Finish school!’

He has more of a prominent role since I finished, but the team is essentially still him and me —there’s no big scary label, which is good. It means that anything that happens is because we’ve worked on it ourselves.

There’s been loads of lucky things like going on The Late Late Show; things that I thought were maybe unachievable without a big team or a friend in the right place.”

With influences like Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac, Cyndi Lauper, Imogen Heap and Regina Spektor in the mix, Gartland claims that her original compositions have come on in leaps and bounds over the last year, too.

Embracing her love of pop was key to shaping new self-released EP Lonely People.

“I think there’s been a lot of development from me, personally. Most people who tend to do music tend to have a rich musical background, but my parents brought me up on horrible pop music —not even the good stuff,”she laughs.

“So when I started to do my own music, I was drawing from things in a slightly less aware way. That was good because I felt like I wasn’t copying anything, but I didn’t really know where I was coming from or what I wanted to sound like.

The biggest change in the last year is that I’ve started to listen to a lot more music; a lot of ’80s music in particular, actually. It still feels like a bit of a singer-songwriter hybrid, but there’s an undeniable pop element in there, too.

I think that’s been the biggest thing over the last year: ‘pop’can feel like a dirty word when you turn on the radio today, but having listened to people like Cyndi Lauper and Kate Bush, they were leftfield pop and they were amazing.

I’ve started to embrace the fact that I really like that sort of music, rather than keeping it as a guilty pleasure.”

The next few months will be particularly important to her development. She’ll embark on her biggest British tour to date in February, this time with a full band, before moving on to the States for her first US tour —including a date at the prestigious SXSW festival in March.

Lonely People recently topped the iTunes alternative charts in the US, so there is a fanbase of some sort ready and waiting for her Stateside.

“They like the Irish over there, don’t they? So I have a bit of a cheeky advantage, maybe,”she says, chuckling.

“I went there last April for the first time and did a free show in a warehouse with no advertising —and a couple of hundred people turned up. I don’t know how anybody knows me, but we’ll see what happens.”

Since moving to London in September, it seems like things have started to coalesce on a greater scale. She admits that she has had label interest, but she remains in no hurry to sign on the dotted line. She is, as she points out, literally just out of her teens. There is plenty of time.

“I still feel like I have quite a while to go with the album element and I’m not in a massive rush with it,”she shrugs, smiling. “When you’re young in particular, and someone waves contracts under your nose, there can definitely be a sense of ‘Oh my god, yes!’because there’s security with it and you feel like you’re moving forward; but I think the best advice I was given was by a musician friend’s manager. They said ‘Just chill out. If you do sign, you usually only get one real shot at it —so make sure you’re absolutely at your best and know exactly what you want.’There’s still a bit of development to go, but it feels like it’s coming along nicely. And I want to be at my best whenever it does happen.”

Orla Gartland plays King Tut's, Glasgow on February 12; Deaf Institute, Manchester on February 17; Arts Club, Liverpool on February 18; Islington Academy, London on February 20; Thekla, Bristol on February 21; The Institute, Birmingham on February 22 and The Bodega, Nottingham on February 23. Lonely People is available now.